Medium’s direction shift: why we should welcome it

Yesterday, the news broke that Medium has shifted direction, and is laying off some people, and bashed out a quick post. With a night’s sleep (but not a good one, thanks to my youngest…) behind me, I have a slightly more nuanced take, partly informed by some Twitter conversations this morning. Anyone in the journalism industry should probably regard this as very good news.

Why? well, on the surface, this is only good news. On one hand, Medium is walking away from the traditional, tired and possibly dried up model of content platforms past:

  • Build a platform
  • Attract creators
  • Creators attract audiences
  • Monetise the audience via ads

That’s been the model of Blogger and Twitter, Ev Williams’s previous two businesses – and pretty much every other free-to-use content platform out there, including Facebook and YouTube. Medium is explicitly rejecting that approach. It’s led us too far down the route of clickbait, to desperately woo the vast traffic numbers needed to make non-niche advertising plays work. And given that Facebook and Google are eating the vast majority of the advertising revenue out there, it really doesn’t leave much for the rest of us.

It’s nice to see a platform backing away from these quality-eroding approaches. As Marketing Land is reporting, Medium has killed its Promoted Stories feature:

Medium introduced Promoted Stories in April as a way for the platform and publishers, like The Awl, The Bold Italic and Pacific Standard, that call Medium home to make money. Advertisers would pay to have their own Medium posts placed at the bottom of those publishers’ Medium posts. Brands like Bose, SoFi and Intel were among the first to buy Medium’s ad product, but it’s unclear how Promoted Stories performed and whether the ad format could lay the foundation for a sustainable revenue stream. Based on Williams’ blog post, it seems to have laid the wrong foundation.

In essence, it has done away with the Taboola and Outbrain-style links at the ends of posts that are steadily turning even the most upmarket site on the web into a funnel to crap content. So far, so good.

A content monetization lab?

On the other hand, Medium is leaning into a new concept for content monetisations. As Nic Newman put it:

The problem, which I focused on in the previous post, is that they don’t seem to know how to do this.

I tend towards the skeptical – if only because Ev William’s two previous ventures have ended up following the ads model for monetization, be it Google ads on Blogger blogs or promoted Tweets infecting your stream. Indeed, he struggled to turn both products into viable businesses. He has a much stronger record in product innovation than business model innovation – and that latter’s what’s needed here.

However, Williams has palatable got better over the years at surrounding himself with bright people who can solve problems. The Ev Williams of 2016 is much more likely to pull this off than his decade-younger self was for Twitter. Newman again:

That’s the nub of this announcement – by shedding sales and support staff that were aligned towards a traditional business model approach, Medium is essentially doing two things:

  1. Opening up the organisation’s mind to new approaches to making money
  2. Extending its funding runway, but dropping its biggest single cost – salaries – by ⅓.

The latter of those two essentially facilitates the former. It’s going to be much harder to get investment for a platform whose entire strategy is based around a brand new monetization approach. Making the most of the money they already have will be critical in taking the time they need to figure out this new model – if they can.

Exploring platform and business innovation

This is just what we need right now – a business run by tech savvy people who are essentially experimenting with both publishing platforms – and Medium is a great one, especially compared to the abominations that pose as CMSes in many publishers – and in business models. Since Medium moved away from its role as a “platisher” – combined publisher and platform – by shedding its content assets and doubling down on being a platform, it’s not longer directly a threat, either.

We should – and I include myself in that – want this to succeed. We need more viable content business models, and a content-neutral, platform-derived one might be very useful indeed.

As I said yesterday, interesting times. But times most certainly worth watching very carefully.